Yes, Writing Is a Job (Even if it Doesn’t Pay Well)

The attitude that writing is a hobby allows writers to be exploited

Writing is hard. It’s hard to do, hard to sell if you do it, hard to find readers if you do sell, and hard to earn a living wage off of even if you find readers. But writing is work. Work deserves pay. Writing is, in short, a job.

That may seem obvious, but the point needs to be repeated now and then because there are lots of forces that would like you to think writing isn’t a job. Sometimes those forces are corporations who try to convince you to give away your work for “exposure.” Other times they take the form of well-meaning writers who are trying to give some “real talk” about the writing life. Today’s example is Ester Bloom in The Billfold with a piece titled “You Can’t Make A Living As A Writer Because Being a Writer Isn’t a Job”:

Kafka, Dickens, Nabokov — they all had day jobs. Novelists have day jobs! Roxane Gay, who is busy and accomplished enough to be several people, still has a day job. Writers have day jobs because being a writer isn’t a job. Writing is a thing you can do if you like it! It’s a thing you might get paid for, now and again, if you’re good at it! But it’s not a job.

Bloom goes on to say that maybe writing can be a part of a job “doing the kind of un-fun, unsexy kind of arranging words that pays the bills: content marketing, for example, or corporate communications.” There are a few points that should be made here. The first is that many people do make a living writing. In addition to all the people doing the “un-fun” writing work, there are TV writers, film screenplay writers, newspaper journalists, and even full-time novelists who earn their living writing. All of those gigs are hard to get, but they certainly do exist and many people have them. So Bloom is factually wrong from the start. A second point is that it’s a little dishonest to say that famous writers like Dickens and Nabokov had day jobs and point to jobs they had before they were famous writers. Those writers did not write as quirky side hobbies. Their whole lives were built around writing, and when they were selling enough to write full time they did. (Kafka, of course, barely published during his lifetime and died young and mostly unknown. Writing is a hard life, even for geniuses.)

The fact that writing is hard and there are many hobbyists doesn’t mean it isn’t a job either. It is very hard to be a professional athlete or a head chef, and many people practice sports or cooking as hobbies. But we would not pretend an NBA player or a head chef doesn’t have a job.

The more important point is that something can be a job even if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would. Many literary writers today work as professors, editors, or book publicists while also earning income from writing. Many lucky authors who could live entirely off of their writing still work a part-time or even full-time job for extra money (because the Baby Boomers destroyed the global economy and shit is fucking tough out there). Still, earning 50% of your income teaching and 50% of your income freelance writing doesn’t mean that one or the other “isn’t a job” or is something you should approach with the attitude that you only “might get paid for, now and again.”

Even if writing only makes up a tiny fraction of your income, it can still be a job and should be treated as such. Or, at the very least, if your writing is generating money for other people — publishers, magazines, corporate entities — then you should be getting paid too.

My point is not to pounce on Bloom here. There is a real problem with the attitude that writing and other art forms are just hobbies or passions that the creators shouldn’t expect to get paid for. That’s exactly what allows artists to be exploited. Companies prey on the attitude that art is just a fun side thing. Corporations love the idea that “exposure” is all they should have to pay artists with. It is the very idea that writing isn’t a job that makes it not a job!

And the attitude really does affect how the publishing economy shakes out. As an example, here’s a dirty little secret I’ve learned from the publishing world: literary magazines and publishers normally pay visual artists more than writers. That’s right, even though 99% of the people buying a copy of The Miscellaneous Slush Pieces Quarterly are doing so to read the writing, the handful of reprinted photographs or paintings probably cost more money than the stories. Why? Because visual artists and designers don’t give their work away for free! Publishers know they have to pay more to get good art, so they pay more.

In fact, this is true among writers as well. As a fiction writer, I have a foot in the genre world and a foot in the literary world. I’ve published in both worlds and know many editors and writers in both. The genre world typically pays more, when you compare work in equivalent size magazines. Why? Because the genre world has a very strong ethos about paying writers. Magazines are designated “professional” or “semi-professional” based on pay rates, and memberships in professional organizations are based on having published in paying markets. This attitude shapes how the genre world operates.

I’m not saying you should never work for free. I’ve published many, many pieces for free. Sometimes exposure is worth it, and sometimes the money just isn’t there. If you are writing weird poems on a friend’s Tumblr page that only a handful of people will read, you can’t expect to be paid because there is no money being made. But if you are writing for, say, a big website that gets massive traffic, you should absolutely demand to be paid.

Plus, if we treat writing as something that can only be done as a side hobby, then we will only have writers who can afford a side hobby.

To be fair to Bloom, she was responding to an essay by the writer Merritt Tierce in which she lamented promptly going broke despite publishing an acclaimed novel. I’ve met Tierce before, and we published a rave review of the book here. Tierce is a great fiction writer, but it is true — as Bloom and many others have pointed out — that she comes off as a bit naïve in her essay. Tierce quit her job before her book came out, expecting to live on her advance and her husband’s income, and then years later, having failed to produce a second book, learned she couldn’t live as a writer and got another job. Writing is a job, but, well, you have to do it to get paid. No one can live as a book writer not writing books.

And to be fair to Tierce, most people can’t make a living writing fiction period. Most writers do need a second job or a day job. Sometimes that’s another writing job (magazine non-fiction writing say), sometimes that is a writing-related job like teaching, and sometimes that’s something else entirely. It is true that the literary world can be very naïve about money, and the MFA world doesn’t give writers the clearest picture of how hard writing can be.

Tierce also says she’d gladly accept a mere 40k a year to write books without another job. 40k is more than the median income of a single earner in the US, so hardly a noble sacrifice. But there is middle ground between wide-eyed idealism about how all fiction writers should be paid a handsome wage, and exploitation-enabling cynicism about how writing should never be seen as something you can earn real money from.

No matter how many “death of the novel” think pieces are published each year, people still pay — in dollars or eyeballs — to read writing every day. If your writing is getting read, you should expect to be paid, even if it isn’t enough to live off, entirely; hell, even if it isn’t enough to pay your bar tab as you weep over your tiny royalty statement.

Writing is a job, but will only remain one if we treat it as such.

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